Scripture: Luke 14:1, 7-24
As a preacher who needs to come up with new sermon material every week—with fresh illustrations that keep me from repeating myself too often—I’m delighted than an item in the news last week perfectly illustrates a point I want to make in today’s scripture. And let me preface this by saying that while this news event relates to politics, I am not passing judgment—one way or another—on the politics of this news item.
I’m referring, of course, to President Biden’s announcement about the forgiveness of up to $20,000 in student loans. It’s clear, from my little corner of the social media universe, that many people have strong opinions about this. And many, many people do not like it. Which is perfectly fine…
But the reaction to this breaking news proves an important truth that lies near the heart of today’s scripture: Human beings in general do not like receiving something that we don’t in some sense pay for—or earn, or deserve… And we do not like giving something that doesn’t get paid back—or reciprocated, or returned to us—in some way.
So I’m going to explore this idea as it relates to today’s scripture.
In today’s scripture, Jesus teaches many things about both entering God’s kingdom and living in it. So that’s what I want to talk about… through four main points: One, the price of admission into God’s kingdom. Two, the pride that either prevents us from entering the kingdom or from being happy once we’re inside. Three, the payment that makes us part of the kingdom. And, four, the party that we find inside the kingdom.
The price, the pride, the payment, and the party… That’s what today’s sermon is about.
Occasionally, I’ve gone through a fast-food drive-through—and maybe this has happened to you—but I’ve gone through a fast-food drive-through and the cashier says, “Your meal has been paid for by the driver in front of you.” And I’m like, “Sweet!” And I drive on out and enjoy my free meal. This has happened at least a few times over the years. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that my response to receiving a free meal—to just drive off and enjoy it—was the incorrect response… that I was wrong to receive this free meal.
Why do I say that? What I was supposed to do instead? Do any of you know?
That’s right, I was supposed to… not pay it back, because the person who paid for my meal was long gone at this point… but I was supposed to pay it forward… by doing what? By “continuing the chain” by paying for the meal of the driver behind me, and then they would pay for the meal of the driver behind them, and so on, and so on…
I told someone not long ago that I have literally never in my life “paid it forward” in the drive-through; that I’ve always only “broken the chain.” And when I told someone this, he looked at me like I was the biggest jerk in the world! Like, “What kind of person are you? Don’t you know you’re supposed to pay it forward?”
And I’m like, “But if I pay it forward, I’m no longer receiving a free gift!”
But as I said earlier, something within us resists the receiving of a free gift.
And so it is in today’s scripture… Verse 1: “One Sabbath, when he”—Jesus—“went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.” They were watching him carefully because Jesus kept doing and saying things that rubbed them the wrong way.
See, these Pharisees believed that only by strictly adhering to their particular interpretation of the Ten Commandments and the rest of God’s Law, they were proving to God and to everyone else that they were worthy of God’s love and grace and acceptance. Only by living out their religious faith in this particularly strict and rigid sort of way, could they become part of God’s kingdom. They believed, in other words, that they needed to pay for admission into God’s kingdom.
And Jesus said no.
Point Number One: Jesus taught that the price of admission into God’s kingdom was a completely free gift… The forgiveness of sins, eternal life, becoming part of God’s kingdom, becoming part of God’s family… these things, Jesus said, didn’t depend on our own righteousness, on anything that we could do. We could instead only receive these gifts freely.
This puts Jesus at odds with the Pharisees.
And this brings us to Point Number Two: pride. The sin of pride either prevents us from entering God’s kingdom in the first place, or at least limits our enjoyment ofit once we’re in it. Nearly everything Jesus says in this passage—if we take it to heart—is about killing our pride.
Killing our pride is the point of Jesus’ strange parable in verses 7 through 11… Recall that in verse 1, we’re told that the Pharisees were watching Jesus carefully. In verses 7 to 11, Jesus is the one watching the Pharisees. And what he sees is this: each of the invited guests is “jockeying for position” around the dinner table. In the ancient world, the person sitting to the left of the banquet host had the most honorable position. And then the other “places of honor” were the ones nearest the host. The farther you were from the host, the less honorable you were.
So here’s a question: Is Jesus is just giving good and practical and worldly-wise advice about how to bring honor to yourself and avoid shame? Is he saying, “Listen: When you go to a party, you don’t want to embarrass yourself and look bad in front other people. You want to exalt yourself instead. So here’s how to do it. Sit at the lowest place of honor—sit at the seat farthest from the host—and then… the host will be compelled to come over to you and insist that you move closer to him, to a more honorable and distinguished place. And then, far from being embarrassed, everyone will think more highly of you.”
No—even if this is practical advice, that can’t be Jesus’ point… After all, in verse 11, Jesus talks about being humbled: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”It would only be false humility to pretend that you’re humble in order to be exalted.
No, Jesus’ main point in this parable is to say—at the risk of wounding the pride of the other dinner guests: “You think it’s up to you to secure your position in God’s kingdom. But you don’t understand: You can’t jockey for position in my kingdom… because whether or not you have a position is not up to you. You can’t force your way to a place of honor through your own efforts. In other words, you can’t earn your place in my kingdom. You can only receive your place in my kingdom… as a free gift… It must be granted to you by me, the host of this heavenly banquet.”
So Jesus challenges us: Will our pride prevent us from receiving this gift it on his terms—as a completely free gift—or will we continue to insist on earning it? Because if we insist on earning it, we’ll never be able to receive it in the first place.
Of course, even when gifts appear to be free, they’re often not. They come with strings attached. We still have to earn it.
I’m thinking of something affectionately known in my family as the “Mary-tary.” Many years ago, when she was still alive, my Aunt Mary gave my sister Susan a precious family heirloom, an antique writing desk called a secretary. Maybe you know all about “secretaries” of this kind. I had never heard the word used in this way before Susan got this furniture. Anyway, a secretary is a piece of furniture—it opens up and folds out into a desk. It has shelves. It’s very nice. And for all I know it’s worth a small fortune. When Aunt Mary gave this gift to my sister, Susan affectionately nicknamed it the “Mary-tary,” in honor of the gift-giver, Aunt Mary.
So Susan was very happy and grateful to have it… at least at first. But see, that’s when the phone calls started. Aunt Mary, you see, was calling to check up on the Mary-tary. She needed to know: Was Susan displaying the Mary-tary in a prominent place in her home? Was she keeping the cats and the dogs and the children away from the Mary-tary—so that it wouldn’t get damaged? Was she keeping the Mary-tary out of direct sunlight, because the sun might discolor it?
Was she properly cleaning, polishing, dusting, and maintaining the Mary-tary? Did she know how valuable the Mary-tary was? Did she know, for instance, that this furniture really belonged in a museum—where it could be admired by man others—and not in someone’s private home? Did Susan know how lucky she was to have it?
From Aunt Mary’s perspective, Susan could hardly have thanked her enough for this gift, praised her enough for it, honored her enough for it.
It soon became clear that Aunt Mary wasn’t giving a gift to Susan at all… She was giving a gift to herself. Because by giving this gift, Aunt Mary was receiving something in return: the praise and honor and undying gratitude of her niece.
Why was Aunt Mary doing this?
And pride was exactly what hosting dinner parties in the first century was all about, too: Sure, you’re giving people the gift of this extravagant meal and the gift of this hospitality—and it could be quite an expensive gift… except you expect that this gift will be repaid in some way. Your dinner guests will be expected to throw a party for you in return—which will in turn improve your standing and enhance your reputation in the community. In fact, you throw a party so that the “right people”—the important people, the powerful people—will come to your party, and their very presence will enhance your standing and reputation.
The point is, you didn’t throw parties as free gifts. You threw them to win something, to earn something, to gain something. You threw parties in part to be repaid. You threw parties in part to exalt yourself.
And that’s pride! And Jesus means to kill pride! Which is why Jesus’ words in verses 12 to 15 are so extreme! They would have seemed crazy to Jesus’ audience: “Don’t invite the friends and family that you love. They’ll repay you. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” One thing you never, ever did was to invite to your party anyone who enjoyed a lower social status than you. Those people couldn’t repay you—and as one commentator put it, that would be social suicide.
But even in today’s world… I have never done what Jesus says to do in verses 12 to 15. Have you? I’m not even sure how to do it.
But I don’t believe Jesus is speaking literally. For one thing, if the host of this dinner party had taken Jesus literally, well… Jesus himself wouldn’t have been invited to this party, either.
No, I believe Jesus is using hyperbole; that is, he’s exaggerating… in order to make an important point. He does the same thing, for instance, when he says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Or when he says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children”—et cetera—“he cannot be my disciple.” 1
So what’s the point? The point is, loving others with genuine Christ-like love means not caring at all about what we “get out of” this relationship. Because remember: the host of this party cared greatly about the ways in which this party would enhance his own reputation. The partygoers themselves cared greatly about the ways in which this party was advancing their standing in the community.
Whatever else the host of the party and the partygoers were doing, they were not showing Christ-like love. They were showing self-interest masquerading as love. They were showing pride masquerading as love.
And in verses 12 to 15, Jesus is telling us to kill our pride. If you want to be part of God’s kingdom, kill your pride! And I find this incredibly difficult, and you probably do, too!
For this reason, when someone approaches me on the street for a handout, I’m much more likely to help the person if no one else is watching me. Because the worst part about a stranger asking for money isn’t parting with the money. Whatever. God has been incredibly gracious in that department. I can afford to give the money. That isn’t hard. And the hard part isn’t trying to discern whether or not this person is telling me the truth—or whether they’re lying or “taking advantage of me.” For all I know, they are lying and taking advantage. Whatever. When I give a handout, I give it as a free gift comes with no strings attached. So I don’t care that they might be lying.
Those things aren’t wait I hate so much about giving handouts… What I hate about being approached on the street for a handout is the fear that other, more “respectable” people may see me giving the handout… and judge me for it.
It’s not secret. I’m afraid of people’s judgments of me! Therefore, it is almost comical that God called me to this vocation where—after standing up in front of people every week and speaking this sermon that I’ve created—I then have to stand in this thing called “the greeting line” in which people take turns telling me whether or not they thought I did a good job!
And some of you are so nice, I know you’re lying to me!
But my point is, I’m afraid of being judged… And it’s this fear of being judged by “respectable” people that often makes me reluctant to give handouts. Because I worry that respectable people are looking at me, thinking, “Look at that sucker! Doesn’t he know that that guy has had the same hard-luck story about his car breaking down on his way to his brother’s funeral for going on six years now! How many brothers does this one guy have? How many times does one car break down?”
Being judged by others wounds my pride!
My son Townshend is at Georgia Tech. He’s a member of Toccoa First, of course, but he goes to a Presbyterian church—a PCA church—in midtown Atlanta, near Tech, when he’s at school. And like most churches in midtown, I imagine, his church has a homeless ministry. And they have some homeless who worship with them each Sunday. And then several others who don’t, but who gather on the sidewalk outside the church—and ask for handouts from departing churchgoers.
And Townshend’s pastor hasn’t told anyone what I’m about to say to you. Townshend has only observed his pastor doing this with his own eyes: He’s noticed that when his pastor finishes greeting parishioners, in the greeting line after church, he walks over to the homeless men, greets them by name, and says, “Let’s go.” And he walks with with five or six of them down the street to a nearby restaurant, where he buys them lunch and eats lunch with them—alongside a mostly upscale crowd of yuppies in midtown Atlanta… Townshend says he does this every Sunday after church.
And his example challenges me: Could I do it? Or would my pride stand in the way?
So if, like me, you listen to these words and think, I’m hopeless, I’m so sin-sick, I’m so full of pride… “My pride disqualifies me from God’s kingdom”… if that’s what you’re afraid of, you need to hear what Jesus says next… Which brings us to Point Number Three: If the price we pay to enter God’s kingdom is free, who’s paying our way?
It’s a good question, because the many people last week who complained about the forgiveness of loans were exactly right: somebody has to pay our debt—even if it’s not paid by those of us who originally accrued it!
And to be sure, the Bible says that we owe a debt to God… because of our sin. And if someone doesn’t pay it for us, the Bible says that far from being admitted into God’s kingdom, we’ll spend an eternity separated from God, in hell! So who pays the debt of sin that we owe to God—if we don’t pay it?
And here’s what I want us to notice: Remember how I said that I’ve never done what Jesus says I should do in verses 12 to 14 when it comes to throwing a party—and how you probably haven’t either? We’ve never thrown a party in which we invited only “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” rather than friends and family and people we love and admire? But now look at this second parable in verses 16 to 24: Notice that the only people who attend this rich man’s banquet—they’re not the elites, the wealthy, the powerful, the important people; they’re not the good and respectable members of society. None of those so-called “good” people enjoy the banquet. Only “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” in verse 21 end up attending.
Please notice: Those are the only two groups—the rich, the powerful, the elite who don’t go, and the “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” who do.
And Jesus’ point is this: If you’re in God’s kingdom, you only got there by being among the “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Not because you were anything special. Not because you were worthy.
Jesus is saying, in other words, in a spiritual sense, we all need to become like “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”—or we need to recognize that we already are like them, spiritually speaking.
Elsewhere Jesus makes this same point in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 2 Very few of us is poor in here… but if we want to be part of the kingdom, we have to be poor in spirit.
My son’s pastor… he is only able to love these homeless men the way he does because he understands, deep down in his bones, that he is not better than they are; he’s not above them; he’s not morally superior to them. He recognizes that he too was among the losers—“the spiritually poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”—but thank God, in spite of this fact, God’s Son Jesus invited a spiritual loser like him to the party!
So thank God that none of these parables, and none of this difficult teaching, are mostly about us and what we do—they are mostly about Jesus, and what he’s done for us. He has paid our admission into this banquet… even though, like “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” in both parables, we have done nothing to deserve it! And we could never pay Jesus back for what he’s done for us.
So… upon reading today’s scripture, if you throw up your hands and say, “I can’t do it! I’m hopeless! I’m too full of pride! I’m too big a sinner!” Remind yourself: “That’s right! I am these things. But what I couldn’t do for myself, Jesus did for me!”
And finally, this brings us to Point Number Four: Please notice that Jesus says that God’s kingdom is like a what? It’s like a party—the greatest party of all time! The Bible makes this point many times over—including when Jesus performs the very first miracle of his public ministry—to turn water into wine at a wedding reception in John chapter 2. Just think: the miracle that inaugurates Jesus’ public ministry to make a wedding banquet—already a very big party—an even bigger party. And this is Jesus’ way of saying that God’s kingdom is like a party, it’s a great celebration, it’s an occasion for great joy…
And the Bible also says that we experience this God’s kingdom—at least in part—in the here and now. We don’t simply wait until death or the Second Coming or heaven. We experience at least some measure of this party right now!
After all, for these “poor, crippled, lame, and blind” people who got invited to the party, when did they start experiencing joy? When they were seated at the table and eating their meal? No!
They began experiencing joy the moment they received the invitation… They continued to experience joy as they were getting dressed for the party… They continued to experience joy while they were on their way to the party… They continued to experience joy when stepped inside the banquet hall and smelled the aroma of a meal better than any they had ever tasted! And they continued to experience joy as they anticipate a future in which this kind of lasting happiness and joy never end.
By the way, I read recently that according to some study, we Americans take vacations because they make us happy. Well, that seems obvious enough. Except… You know when we’re happiest, according to this research? It’s not when we’re actually on vacation. We’re at our very happiest the day before we leave for vacation. In other words, the anticipation of the joy of our upcoming vacation enables us to endure whatever else we have to do in order to get ready for that vacation—no matter how difficult—and we endure it with great happiness and joy.
Speaking of which, this reminds me of something the author of Hebrews says. As you probably know, in the Roman Empire—to say the least—people did not enjoy the First Amendment protections that we Americans enjoy. Not at all. Christians were often badly mistreated—and even killed—for living out their faith. And the author of the Book of Hebrews is talking to some of these persecuted Christians.
And in chapter 10, verse 34, he tells them, “when all you owned was taken from you, you accepted it with joy. You knew there were better things waiting for you that will last forever.”
You accepted it with joy… Those words blow me away.
For most of us, having our worldly possessions confiscated from us—or worse—would be incredibly difficult. Yet these Christians “accepted it with joy” because they knew better things were waiting for them that will last forever.
I want to be more like these Christians, don’t you? Too often, in my experience, when something far less consequential than persecution happens to me—when I don’t get my way, when I get sick, when I suffer a setback—I often fail to accept even these relatively minor inconveniences with joy. God help me, I often grumble and complain and feel sorry for myself instead.
But why? Don’t I know that there are better things waiting for me that will last forever?
And that’s ultimately what this sermon series, which concludes today, has been about: In general, we’re not happy enough right now, even though we’re Christians. I want us to experience more and more of this joy of God’s kingdom. And I believe Jesus wants us to experience more and more of this joy!
Dear God, give us the faith to believe your holy Word, including the words of your Son Jesus, who promises us again and again that lasting happiness can be ours and shows us how we can receive it. Inasmuch as we rebel against your Word, inasmuch as we stubbornly insist on finding happiness on our own terms—rather than the terms of your Son and his kingdom—please forgive us and give us the grace to change! Amen.